Monday, March 17

The Best Job...EVER!

I've written here that I worked for WWJ-TV in Detroit. I've written that I worked for WDIV-TV in Detroit. Did I write that they were one-and-sort-of-the-same?

These days it seems just about anyone can own just about any number of TV stations in any markets they darn well please. That's a change. For the longest time the feds put strict restrictions on the number of "voices" you could control in any market. They were, they said, worried about one owner settting itself up as the gatekeeper in each market, becoming so powerful that all other voices were drowned out.

The FCC was particularly tough on newspapers owning TV stations. That's why the Detroit Evening News, which owned WWJ-TV in the motor city, and The Washington Post (as Post-Newsweek), which owned WTOP in the nation's capital, got worried enough to arrange a swap.

So in 1978 the top brass from WTOP moved to Detroit to take over at the newly-renamed WDIV ("We're Four Detroit," with the IV being the Roman Numeral "Four," get it?).

I jumped at the chance to return to Channel 4, even though it was to essentially the same job I had held four years earlier (or is that IV years earlier?); producer. The ownership change made it very attractive.

WWJ had always been the newspaper's red-headed bastard stepchild. Boy, were they cheap! The prevailing wisdom was that a little infusion of Post-Newsweek money and leadership added to an excellent (if under-manned and under-equipped and under-financed) news staff would lead to a rebirth of Channel 4.

The first signs were positive. The News had charged employees to park in its parking lot. Not much--50 cents--but they charged you to come to work. Some poor schlub was on duty 24/7 to collect your four bits. On "Day One" Post-Newsweek instituted free parking and tore down the parking lot attendant's shack. Talk about a positive first impression!

And the new management--straight from Washington, and proven winners--brought in Mort Crim from Chicago as main anchor. Another hugely positive sign. If you want to think first class and act first class and be first class you need a first-class anchor: and Mort Crim fit the bill. It wasn't just his deep, resonant voice and his commanding presence: he was the best pure writer I ever worked with.
These days, with computers, you can write and re-write and revise and review and re-re-re your scripts a hundred times. In the old typewriter days a re-write meant a new carbon set. Some nights the writing came easy, and you'd look to the heavens and say, "Lord, I don't know why you bestowed this gift on me today, but please don't ever take it away." The next night at 10:50 p.m. you'd look down to find fiftycopy sets scattered around your wastebasket!

Mort did a ton of his own writing, but I'll bet if I asked Mort to write 40 stories a week he did it on 41 copy sets. He had an ability to sit at the keyboard--look down for thirty seconds--and immediately bang out perfect copy. Every time. Must have been from his days as an ABC Radio correspondent. A master. A pro.

Some time after I left WWJ they had moved the newsroom from its cramped quarters on the third floor into one of the TV studios downstairs, and built a news set in the new newsroom. That's what Post-Newsweek inherited. It had the advantage of having a lighting grid already in place. The disadvantage was it was a noisy old two-story barn of a room. Offices were created by throwing up some walls--but walls without ceilings. The whole place--with AP and UPI wire machines and typewriters and police scanners and telephones and voices raised--sounded like a Ford assembly line going full blast.
One of the first things the new owners did was arrange for big-time news promotion. The promos were to be shot in the newsroom. And in keeping with their big-ticket approach, they hired an outside production house to shoot them. That meant 35mm, a director, a crew, a dolly (with tracks), grips to pull the dolly, lighting people, and--and--and--EXTRAS!

So one day this small army of film-makers came into our newsroom and displaced our small army of TV types. Desks were moved, tracks were laid, our front-line anchor team was positioned in chairs around the room, and Mort was given elaborate lines and choreography. The idea was that Mort would carry a script from place to place, conferring with the rest of the "team," obviously dotting "Is" and crossing "Ts" along the way. It was an impressive bit of "business," but not really out of character for Mort. He really did most of those things most days--sort of. What was disconcerting (and funny!) was that 95% of the actual news staff was shunted off to the side and replaced by the extras. It wasn't enough to be a reporter or a producer or an editor--you had to look like a reporter or a producer or an editor, and I guess most of us didn't.
And at one key point, off in the background, a beautiful young woman in a red blazer, holding a clipboard, was talking into a microphone on a headset.
If you were in the room you could tell the "headset" was a Radio Shack AM radio headset--the kind people sometimes wore in these pre-Walkman days, with big antenae on each side. The "microphone" was glued on. In those days wireless headsets were all but unheard of, but it didn't matter: this woman's "headset" and "microphone" weren't connected to anything.

Still, at one point, with the drumbeat music playing and the announcer talking about Mort Crim, journalist, he walked past this beautiful-woman-in-the-red-blazer-holding-the-clipboard just as she talked into the mic and made notes on the paper in front of her.

The real news staff--standing behind the lights and the tracks and the production staff--giggled uncontrollably. And we each said, "I don't know what the $%$^$ she's doing, but THAT'S THE BEST JOB EVER!"

Just for fun, here's a Mort Crim "sampler" from August, 2007--seven years after I left the station. Here are Mort and Carmen Harlan on an ordinary night, with ordinary news: but ou can see he was an extraordinary anchor.

Mort retired in the mid-90s to run his own production house. He turns 71 soon, and I'm told he's had health problems. Can't help but wish him well. I don't pass around the word "professional" easily or often. Mort has always been a pro.

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